Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Early Language Learning, Bilinguism and Multilingual Britain

JOHN CLIFFORD says in the Scotsman

“CONTRARY to common belief, children are quite capable of understanding and moving across languages from an early age. Bilingualism has wrongly been blamed for learning difficulties in children of migrant families.

Research shows that learning a second language both "builds on the first language and consolidates it". Children do not become confused when they are exposed in their early years to two or more languages, any more than confusion arises when they hear two parents expressing themselves differently in the same language. Like multilingual adults, children often use words from one language when speaking the other but this does not mean they are getting mixed up. They are simply switching between two or more modes of expression.”

Full article available at

Children also can take on a lot more than one thinks. When speaking French to my 3 year-old son, I was baffled that some of his little friends were also responding to my comments. His little friends are not French or particularly exposed to foreign languages. So why is this happening?

My own personal theory is that, as we grow up we expect more and more not to be able to understand foreign utterances-not only different languages but also different accents. Young children seem to be much more able to use context and common sense to work out what they want to find out about. As we grow older, our sense of identity is intrinsically linked to our mother tongue. This is why I often hear this typical comment from teenagers raised in a monolingual environment: “I don’t want to speak French. I am English!”, as if using another language was a threat to their identity…

This report from the Scottish Languages Review shows how much young children can benefit from a rich foreign languages input at an early stage of their school career.

John Clifford states that “The fact only three percent of books published in Britain are translations from other languages indicates the degree to which other cultures tend not to be valued in Britain.

Much significant contemporary material exists only in the original language. The lack of importance attached to language teaching in schools and now some universities, means that many of us are unable to absorb documents and other writing, even to converse, in the major European and other languages. As a consequence we are astonishingly remote from our neighbours in the wider world - and increasingly in our midst.”

Latest estimates show that more than half the world’s population live in ‘multilingual’ areas, with 23 official languages, and hundreds of immigrant minority languages spoken in Europe alone.


Dr Priscilla Clarke, executive director, FKA Children’s Services, Australia, said that language hierarchies can have a profound effect on children’s learning.
She said: “The devaluing of children’s home culture and indigenous language can result in a loss of feeling of self-worth, loss of intimacy and the ability to build relationships, and, crucially, loss of motivation for learning.”

It is not new, England has always been multilingual!

The issues linked with students taking qualifications in their home language and the differences between mfl and community languages teaching are presented in this report, which could be the basis of a healthy discussion about raising the profile of community languages in your school



Anonymous said...

Learning languages is obviously important for children and adults. How important, though, is the connection between learning language and the relationships that are built between different people who are learning languages from each other? There is bonding and relationship building in the process. How crucial is it that people don't forget to learn from the relationship part as well as the intellectual part?

IC Jones said...

If I understand your question correctly, you are asking if the connection between the language-learning process and the "emotional" dimension of learning a language is important. My answer is yes yes yes. Learning a language is learning about people, so the element of "bonding with the culture" should happen at some point. The quicker we move away from the "messing with grammar" or "transactional only" approaches, the better. They are all useful but the Human dimension will always come first. Let's face it, I did not learn English just to be able to order a drink in a pub!